In a helpful discussion of the justification as a status-creating declaration, Wright ( Paul and the Faithfulness of God , 946-7) once again insists that the righteousness that describes the legal status of the justified person cannot be the same as the righteousness of the judge himself: “The judge’s own ‘righteousness’ consists in hearing the case fairly according to the law, remaining impartial, supporting widows and orphans, punishing evil and upholding the good. To say that this ‘righteousness’ is somehow accounted to, or accredited to, the vindicated defendant makes no sense.”

In a footnote, he response to Kevin Vanhoozer’s claim ( Jesus, Paul and the People of God: A Theological Dialogue with N. T. Wright ) that by imputed righteousness “the Reformers were talking about the status of Christ’s covenant faithfulness.” Wright says,

“To this I reply (a) that the Reformers were not usually talking about the covenant at all, at least not in the sense that I have been using the term; (b) that many of their successors have been allergic to covenantal ideas; (c) more importantly, both the Reformers and their successors have regularly elided the idea of ‘Christ’s righteousness’ with that of ‘God’s righteousness,’ wrongly interpreting the latter as the ‘righteous status’ of God’s people, and taking references to the divine righteousness (e.g., Rom. 3:21), read in that sense, as references to the former, thus missing the point Paul was actually making and elevating something he was not saying to the status of a central doctrine” (fn. 480).

In this response, there is a combination of insight, misrepresentation, and confusion.

Start with the misrepresentation: Granted the Reformers didn’t share precisely Wright’s understanding of covenant (e.g., Abrahamic promises as involving the repair of creation, the purpose of Israel). But it’s false to say that the Reformers “were not usually talking about the covenant at all .” Calvin may not have been a “covenant theologian” in the sense that later Calvinists were, but the theme of covenant is hardly absent from his theology (see Peter Lillback, Binding of God, The: Calvin’s Role in the Development of Covenant Theology ). Luther interpreted diatheke as “testament,” a translation Wright would dispute, but understood in that sense, the concept of covenant was central to Luther’s understanding of the Eucharist. Zwingli used covenantal concepts in talking about sin and redemption and baptism. For lesser-known Reformers like Bullinger ( Fountainhead of Federalism: Heinrich Bullinger and the Covenantal Tradition ) and Musculus ( Covenant, Causality, and Law: A Study in the Theology of Wolfgang Musculus ), covenantal concepts loomed large.

Wright’s claim that “many” of the Reformers’ successors were “allergic” to covenant is bewildering. Perhaps he has in mind Protestant New Testament scholarship; perhaps he’s thinking of Lutheran New Testament scholars. As a description of the history of Reformed theology, it is obvious nonsense. One need only consult the Wiki article on covenant theology . “Covenant” has been the master concept for a good deal of Protestant theology from the sixteenth century to the present.

As to confusion: Wright has regularly rebutted the claim that “God’s righteousness” should be understood as the right conduct of the judge imputed to the defendant, and has just as regularly claimed that this is a widespread view among classical Protestants. I wonder; Wright cites no one here who teaches such a thing, and I find it hard to believe anyone has.

What has been taught is just what Vanhoozer claims: that the righteousness of Christ, His obedience in life and death, is imputed to the defendant. (A couple of minor confusions: Vanhoozer, I suspect, adopts Wrightean language in summarizing the Reformers’ views; they would have spoken of Christ’s obedience, perhaps obedience to covenant, rather than His “covenant faithfulness.” I also find Vanhoozer’s phrasing is awkward. I take it that he means that when the Reformers spoke of the “imputed righteousness of God,” they meant the gift of a status of righteous based on Christ’s obedience, such that the believing sinner is treated as if he had kept the law. If that’s what he means, I’m not sure he chose the best way to express it. Still, contra Wright,the substance of Vanhoozer’s point is correct.)

It is said that “God’s own righteousness” is imputed to believers, but when we unravel that, it means several things: 1) It is based on a particular interpretation of Romans 1:17 and other passages that take dikaiosune theou as a reference to imputed righteousness or to righteous status; b) it is explained theologically as the righteousness of Christ imputed to those who believe. It is not explained theologically as the imputation of the righteousness of the judge to to the accused.

John Murray can stand as representative of this interpretation. On Romans 1, he says that the righteousness is “the righteousness of God that is unto our justification, the righteousness which he later on calls the free gift of righteousness (5:17), the ‘one righteousness’ (5:18), ‘the obedience of the one’ (5:19)” ( The Epistle to the Romans: The English Text with Introduction, Exposition and Notes (New Testament Commentary , 30). There is no thought here of filling the phrase “righteousness of God” with the content “the righteous conduct of the court case by the judge,” or even of taking “of God” as a reference to “of God as judge.” On Romans 3:21, Murray takes “righteousness of God” in the same way, referring to his exegesis of 1:17 (pp. 108-ff.).Murray takes “righteousness of God” as shorthand for “the obedience of Christ freely imputed to the believer so that the believer has a righteous status.” (Wright frequently talks about Paul using “shorthand” phrases that summarize a complex constellation of ideas. If Wright can do that, Murray should be allowed to.)

What Wright seems to have done is a) to understand “righteousness of God” in his own fashion, as an attribute of God, or as a description of God’s faithful dealings with creation and then b) to impute (irony alert!) this view to Protestant interpreters when they talk about the imputed righteousness of God.

Having made these criticisms, I confess that I agree with Wright about his interpretation of the phrase “righteousness of God.” In Romans 1 and 3, it doesn’t refer to imputed obedience or the resulting right status but to God’s own righteousness operative and manifest in the events of the gospel. Wright makes his own persuasive exegetical case less persuasive with his bizarre historical claims and his misrepresentation of unnamed opponents.

Articles by Peter J. Leithart